A 30-year-old Tim Wakefield was one of the best pitchers on the last losing Red Sox team. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
The 2012 Red Sox have been a disappointment, but it's unfair to lump the last two squads in with them as some kind of three-season monster of unfulfilled expectations. The 2010 squad was beset by injuries, derailing Boston's chance at the playoffs, but they still won 89 games. The 2011 team, as we hate to remember, fell one game short of a playoff bid due to a horrid September. Those were two great teams held back just enough to keep them from achieving greatness. While the 2012 team fits into that category in the sense that they have dealt with a record number of days lost to injury, they are also loaded with players who just haven't lived up to their billing. Combine the two, and you get a team under .500 as late-August approaches.
They're very different situations. The 2011 team had a terrible rotation, but that was because bad pitchers were throwing too many innings. The 2010 team had the pitching, and the lineup was good, but it wasn't as good as it was supposed to be, and therefore not enough in the tough American League East. The 2012 iteration of the Red Sox has had the injuries, of course, but the players replacing many of the injured have done pretty well, especially in the rotation. It's the players you expect to do well that have failed, like Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and even Clay Buchholz, who, despite his massive turnaround, leaned entirely on the offense for the first month-plus of the season as he posted a 9.09 ERA to begin the year. Adrian Gonzalez has also reversed course, like Buchholz, but his early start is still visible on his overall numbers. Dustin Pedroia's line cratered due to his time playing while hurt, and it's leading to his worst full season in the majors. Jacoby Ellsbury has been back for over a month now, but you wouldn't know it by the quiet coming from the center fielder's bat.
Those sorts of things didn't happen much the last two years. In fact, things haven't been this bad for the Red Sox in terms of (an impending) final result since 1997, the last time the Red Sox were this far under .500 this late in August. In many ways, that was a similar Red Sox team to the current one, but there are too many differences for it to be a perfect comparison.
The lineup was very good. Scott Hatteberg was better than average at the plate, while Wil Cordero and Darren Bragg were both huge disappointments with the bat, but other than that, this team could mash. Mo Vaughn posted a 152 OPS+ to lead the team. John Valentin had one of his last great years, hitting .306/.372/.499 as the second baseman. Tim Naehring was productive when he played, and the combination of Valentin and Jeff Frye made up for his absence when he wasn't. Troy O'Leary, Reggie Jefferson, and Mike Stanley rounded things out. This was also Nomar Garciaparra's rookie campaign, the one in which he hit .306/.342/.534 with 30 homers and 22 steals.
All told, the 1997 Red Sox finished third in the AL in OPS+ at 110, behind only the Mariners and the Indians. You couldn't even begin to heap the same kind of praise on the pitching staff. The team used 24 different pitchers, with half of them starting a game at one point in the year. Aaron Sele led with 33 starts, but he also posted a 5.38 ERA and 87 ERA+. Steve Avery, in his first year with Boston, threw just 96 innings, most of them bad -- he finished with a rotation-worst 73 ERA+ and 1.0 K/BB. Jeff Suppan, then 22 years old and a top-100 prospect, threw 112 uninspiring frames that left him unprotected in that winter's expansion draft.
Tom Gordon was one of the team's only effective starters, throwing 165 innings with a 3.59 ERA in the role, but he was converted to the bullpen. While that had a happy ending, it didn't help an already terrible rotation. Tim Wakefield was the lone starter to toss 200 innings, and the only one besides Gordon to finish with an above-average ERA+.
John Wasdin had seven starts. Butch Henry started five. Chris Hammond and Vaughn Eshelman started eight and six games, respectively. Bret Saberhagen, who would play a much larger role on future Sox clubs, made six terrible starts as he worked his way back from shoulder surgery. Robinson Checo and Brian Rose both received opportunities to pitch, with Checo doing well, but eventually going down with arm trouble.
The Red Sox finished 10th in ERA+ that year, with the team coming together for a 1.6 K/BB and 4.85 ERA. It's hard to believe, but the 2012 staff has been better, with a 102 ERA+ that ranks nine of 14, and a 2.4 K/BB. The bullpen is a large part of that, though, and not having a 2012 stand-in for Steve Avery has helped as well. The story is the same, though, in that the pitching has sunk this roster.
Boston's lineup isn't much better than average right now thanks to injuries. Like with the pitching in 2011, the team was able to weather the storm for a time, but with multiple hitters slumping at the same time David Ortiz has missed over a month with an Achilles injury, it's just become too much. The return of Carl Crawford combined with Adrian Gonzalez's resurgence and the inexplicable production of Pedro Ciriaco hasn't been enough to counteract the rest of the team failing to do much of anything, or the loss of both Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks. In that way, this team is different from the 1997 squad, but the results are starting to look like they'll be similar.
Like the '97 team, though, there's hope for the future. The struggles of the rotation are likely to force the Red Sox front office to do something to fix things, whether it's acquiring assistance or simply moving a player that used to be an asset in order to make room for a more capable arm. It's unlikely they'll be able to deal a few B-level pitching prospects to get another Pedro Martinez, but they already are looking at some upgrades in 2013, with Franklin Morales possibly getting a full year to start, Felix Doubront with a full year of MLB experience under his belt, and, as much as you might hate to admit it, a healthy -- and likely useful -- John Lackey.
The bullpen has been great since early failure, and that should continue going forward thanks to the plethora of young, inexpensive, and productive arms the Sox have compiled. The lineup has its issues today, but in 2013, Will Middlebrooks will be back, Carl Crawford's elbow will be surgically repaired, and Boston will hopefully be able to leave behind the injury-related struggles of Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, as well as Adrian Gonzalez's odd first half. Ryan Lavarnway should get playing time over the next few weeks, preparing him for his first full year in the bigs, and the likes of Ryan Kalish and Jose Iglesias might get their own shots to make their mark heading into spring 2013 as well.
It's hard to watch a losing squad, but every now and again, it happens. The last time it happened to Boston was 1997, and if they can go 15 years in between sub-.500 campaigns again, then something is going right.